I had to mention each descriptor there because they each had an effect on my experience of travelling from Guangzhou to Singapore to Malacca and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia during the Chinese New Year Spring Festival. First of all, I really enjoyed my holiday and am so glad I went and did everything just the way I wanted to. I saw beautiful places and walked hundreds of thousands of steps and took great photographs (and ate an unjustifiable number of baked goods). But some of the categories I fit into as a person made my trip a little difficult.
Being a woman
It was super hot in Singapore and Malaysia and I was very happy to wear anything but trousers. My legs were exposed every day, and often my chest was too. I expected staring because of my skin colour and hair but forgot that men openly ogle parts of you they find attractive. One guy said ‘hello’ to my boobs. I had a coach driver make kissing noises at me and ask me to ‘call him’ (on what number???) Men honked car horns and shouted incomprehensible things out the window at me. I really forgot how annoying all of these things are. I’d happily take a compliment but all of this is nonsense. I mostly felt safe on my travels until I got to Kuala Lumpur, where there were groups of men hanging out on the street almost everywhere. When it was dark and I’d have to get close to them to walk by them I’d feel a little unsafe. I felt bad for assuming the worst might happen but if I didn’t and something did happen I would hate myself. It was times like that I wished I was a man or with a man. It was in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country where many women dress modestly, that I saw the value of doing so. I guess because so many women showed such little skin, I attracted more attention for the way I was dressed. As if I didn't already feel self-conscious about the things I can't change about my body, I realised that I wanted to expose less of myself, just to give men less material to work with.
Because I was alone I often felt vulnerable. Not just when walking around late at night but also when I had to make responsible decisions like choosing to wake up at 3:30am instead of 4am to catch an early flight. If I messed up it was all on me. Not having anyone to confer with made each decision seem scarier somehow. If something had gone wrong it would’ve been easier to process with someone else. Thankfully nothing went wrong! The worst thing that happened to me on this trip was paying a taxi driver in Malacca a lot of money to take me to a café that I’d heard great things about, only to find out that the kitchen had just closed. Devastating.
As a black person, travelling is often just a pain in the arse. It can make a seemingly small decision, like going to a crowded area, a dilemma when you know people will stare and ask to take pictures with you and nudge their friends or husbands to join them in staring at you. There were a couple of times during my holiday when I wanted to go to a mall and hide myself among rows of clothes or even stay in my hotel room, just so I could feel normal for a little while. Watching people gawp at me makes me feel ugly sometimes (present tense because this is my everyday experience living in Fuzhou). More often it makes me feel intensely self-conscious. There’s looking and then there’s staring. There’s admiring and then there’s glaring. I’ve experienced all of these and I know which I prefer. But honestly I’d prefer if people didn’t see me at all on my travels. I just want to walk around and enjoy my environment – not constantly have to consider if I’m going to stare people down to make them realise that their behaviour is rude or if I’m going to smile at everyone to show that black people are nice and friendly or if I’m going to look at the ground and ignore everyone. All of this is exhausting and takes away from the fun I otherwise have while travelling. I didn’t really see white people experiencing what I was experiencing because there were simply a lot more of them in Southeast Asia than there were black people. They just weren't that interesting. I saw maybe three black people walking around Guangzhou and wanted to sing when I got the airport and saw maybe twenty all in the same place. Didn’t see any more than six in Singapore and even less than that in both Malacca and Kuala Lumpur. Meeting an Eritrean-Canadian girl in Singapore and organising to have breakfast with her made me so ridiculously happy. I would love to see more black people travelling in these places, even if only for my own selfish satisfaction.
Having an afro
As a dark-skinned person, I wasn’t an extreme minority in Singapore or Malaysia. I saw PLENTY of other dark-skinned people; it’s just that nearly all of them were South Asian. I was seeing people darker than me! It was amazing. But I didn’t feel any sense of solidarity or kinship – all they were seeing was a black person with an afro, which was ironic considering my father is South Asian. And they were staring at me as intensely, if not more so, than the Chinese-Singaporeans I saw. Living in Asia, I’ve realised that the term ‘people of colour’ is entirely redundant here. Most Asians would be considered POC in the West but for me as a black person in the East, I’m just black among yellow and brown-skinned people. My appearance here puts me in the singular category of ‘black’ and I realised I was silly to expect dark-skinned Indians to see me as one of them. My afro was blackity black black and on some days I wished I had braided my hair so people wouldn’t stare at me so much. Not all the attention was negative - some people smiled at me, said hello and told me they liked my hair, which I appreciated. Some people asked me for pictures and I obliged when I was in a good mood. But some children laughed at me, singled me out on trains as the source of their entertainment, jumped back in fear at the sight of me, exclaimed things like ‘huh?’ etc. and it just pissed me off, to be honest. One kid in Malaysia was talking to me in a language I didn’t recognise and obviously saying something rude to my face. His mum half-heartedly told him off and he just continued, adding gestures to represent my hair and making stupid noises. Imagine me, a big woman, an adult, being forced to walk away from children making fun of me on my holidays. So tiring.
There are a million reasons why black people living as ethnic minorities – women in particular – adopt hairstyles that the majority deem ‘normal’. Feeling abnormal all the time is a burden. I can’t and don’t want to change anything about my skin or facial features but I wanted to tame my blackness by changing my hair to fit in more. Thankfully I pushed through and tried to enjoy feeling the breeze move through my hair and take to heart whatever compliments I received. But exploring more of Asia has only affirmed what my boyfriend has noticed about me – I have lost much of the security I felt about my appearance in Britain. Being a source of conversation, amusement, mockery etc everywhere I go every single day has taken a toll on the way I view myself. Choosing to style my hair in an afro is too much for a lot of white people, let alone Asians who have never left the continent (or their country) and only know what American black people with artificially straight hair look like. These constant considerations in my head make it harder for me to love myself and present myself confidently to the world. I'm working on building my sense of security again.
I feel like I’m brave for taking that trip. Brave because I travelled alone and took the responsibility of navigating, booking hotels, getting on buses/trains/planes at the right time. Brave because I travelled alone as a woman and exposed myself to environments where men could’ve easily violated me in some way. Brave because I travelled alone as a black woman and endured all the bullshit black people usually try to avoid from those who don’t fully understand how we too qualify as human. And brave because I travelled alone as a black woman with an afro which lots of black people consider a revolutionary hairstyle, let alone the rest of the human population who I honestly have very little hope or time for.